How Do Actors Cry on Cue?
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
I was reading a thread in a forum the other day where someone was asking how do actors cry on command, and a lot of people were responding. It made me laugh because there were a lot of very valid methods being presented, and everyone was arguing about who was right. Acting technique is funny. Like most art forms there isn’t one way to do something, but many ways that are correct and by correct I mean give you the desired result. Imagine asking Claude Monet and Jackson Pollock how to paint a picture. You’d get two very different answers. Imagine how ridiculous it would be for them to argue who was right!
Some actors work from the inside out. In conservatory training we studied the Stanislavski system. In his famous book “An Actor Prepares” Konstantin talks about the concept of the ‘magic if’, meaning “if I were in this situation what would I do?” Some actors work well imagining those given circumstances and that works for them. Sometimes I work this way.
Some actors take this idea and play with sense memory. This means they replace the current situation with something familiar to them in their past that gives the desired result. For example if you need to cry in a scene, an actor might think about their dog dying, which was a time in their life where they cried. They replace and get the desired result and cry in the moment needed to achieve the tears. Lee Strasberg’s work was big on this. Personally, I’m not that into it as it takes me out of the scene, but a lot of people find it really helpful.
Another thing you can do is work from the outside in. Do something physical to stimulate tears and then the emotion will come. Sometimes people scratch or pinch themselves. (So painful!) I know of actors who keep Visine handy to put in their eyes or Peppermint Oil to dab on their bags that sit under their eyes. This irritates the eye and stimulates tears. Sometimes I’ll activate my sinuses where I’ll let the dust fly into my eye and won’t blink it away and that will stimulate tears. All of this stuff is playing with Stanislavksi’s later work with Physical Action. I find the sinus tool to stimulate but once it’s going it activated the inner stuff and I get that pang in my gut and it puts me emotionally there.
When I played Linda in John Patrick Shanley’s “Savage in Limbo” Off- Broadway I entered the stage in tears and those tears ebbed and literally flowed throughout the entire 90 minute show. It was an emotional journey to say the least, but even though I didn’t actually enter the stage until 10 minutes in, I always pre-set myself at the top of the show, and used that time to play that moment before backstage in my head, and activate my sinuses so I was entering the stage in the right physical and emotional space I needed to. It was a masterclass in crying on cue and doing it over and over really helped me find what worked for me. It was also super exhausting! You know how tiring it is to have a good cry? Imagine that journey every night! We go on that ride!
It’s important as an actor to really know how to activate your instrument. We’re all built differently physically and emotionally and while there are many ways to act, not every tool is going to work for everyone. It’s good to experiment and learn and try so you know what works for you. When you get on a film set, time is money. When the director is ready to roll, you better be ready to deliver. In the case of shooting the short version of “The Red Lotus” timing was a matter of finishing the film or not. We were working on a tiny budget and the last scene of the film was an emotional tear jerker that happened during sunset. We were fighting the clock, and the weather forecast. It was set to snow. I had to be ready and because I knew how to activate my instrument we did that whole scene in three takes and got what we needed to before the sunset. Fifteen minutes after we wrapped shooting the sky opened up and the snow started to fall. If I wasn’t ready to go, it would have cost us the whole film.
It’s so silly how actors fight over technique. It’s all valid. Study them all so you have the tools in your toolbox, but work with those tools so when the time comes to build that house of tears, you know whether you need that hammer or that wrench to do the job. At the end of the day all that matters if you have that beautiful home. No one cares if you have a Pollock or a Monet on the walls. Just have a good cry and go with the flow!
Crying Tools that Help Work from the Inside Out:
Crying Tools that Help Work from the Outside In:
Films that Always Make Me Cry:
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This is me playing Linda Rotunda crying in the middle of
"Savage in Limbo" Off-Broadway